To Measure, or not to Measure…

Sometime back, I attended a lecture on the pitfalls of modern Education. The speaker passionately spoke on the negative impact of examination on the learning process in Children. He went on to elaborate on how the fear of failure inculcated through examinations have severe consequences on their emotional and mental development. When the house was thrown open for questions, the first among the audience asked,

“Is there any other way we can measure the progress of Children?”

The obsession to quantify results (and then compare) in any field of human endeavour – from cradle to grave – is deeply ingrained in most minds. From academic performances to social status to professional careers to health, there is some quantitative metric that is relied upon as the sacrosanct indicator of one’s progress or otherwise. There is no doubt that using data helps in simplifying complex issues and makes them easy for anyone and everyone to understand. It gets nebulous when it gets over-analysed, oversimplified, and worse, misinterpreted by those who have no clue on how, as well as, why the metric was introduced in the first place.

Before a metric is chosen, the fundamental question of “Why to measure” is rarely addressed. There are instances when it is unnecessary to have a metric, like enjoying a good music or appreciation a piece of art (there again, digital age provides data on the count of the number of times a music is played or the number of viewers, being taken as a proxy for quality of the music or art). In an interesting piece for The Guardian, Jenny Valentish, quotes Kieran Setiya, who calls a set of activities as “Atleic activities” – activities which have no goal. 

Atelic activities are things we do without fanfare, purely for enjoyment’s sake, that have no endpoint. They can be enjoyed in the present and might offer growth in a way more oriented to wellbeing. Singing, gardening, going for hikes, learning a language, playing sport just for fun – they’re all atelic activities, provided you don’t build in some kind of mission statement.

There is merit in having some atelic activities in life where nothing gets measured, no explanations offered, and nothing gets reviewed or even rewarded. In these activities, simply pursuing them is a reward by itself.

The common justification in measuring is by quoting the popular business management mantra –

What gets measured, gets managed

the source of which could not be traced; like anything corporate, it is credited to whoever is favoured. More often, it is the data that gets managed instead of the activity that it is supposed to measure. It is done by either constantly shifting the goal posts; or by changing the key metric. Take the example of measuring a company’s performance – the key metric would change – from revenue to profits (with its variants) to cash flow to market capitalisation and so on – depending on which metric looks favourable to the management to justify their existence. In case of growth rates, the denominator is chosen carefully to give the best impression of the results – year on year or quarter on quarter or a CAGR over suitable number of years.

Using data indiscriminately to explain results often masks the distinction between the seen and the unseen factors that led to the results. While there are certain aspects that can be measured with reasonable clarity (like standardised test scores), there are many intangibles (like knowledge, efforts, wisdom) that can never be measured. The end-result, explained through numbers, is confused to be an indicator of the unseen factors and if it cannot be explained, ignores the unseen

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics

Again attributed to wide range of sources. The importance that most show towards the use of data, they rarely show towards the calculation of it. A case in the point is that of Gross Domestic Product which is the numero uno when it comes to measuring the growth of  an economy, invariably translated to the development of the country. Rutger Bregman, in his book, “Utopia for Realists”, writes,

When the United Nations published its first standard guideline for figuring GDP in 1953, it totaled just under 50 pages. The most recent edition, issued in 2008, comes in at 722. Though it’s a number bandied about freely in the media, there are few people who really understand how the GDP is determined. Even many professional economists have no clue.

The role of data analytics in sports have become a separate field by itself. The success of Billy Beane in managing Oakland Athletics through data, serialised in the book (as well as movie) ‘Money Ball’, is one of the most popular stories managing sports through metrics. More than just managing, metrics have also changed the narrative of how sports are viewed in media as well as among fans. Gone are the days, when football game was all about the number of goals scored by the team. Now, teams have to improve their possession, number of passes, crosses, tackles, dribbles, heat maps, and what not. While these metrics explain the quantity, they are certainly not a proxy to explain the quality of the sport.

In the book, ‘Stillness and Speed’, Dennis Bergkamp recollected an incident in his later years of football career when data analytics were gaining prominence. He was once confronted with a barrage of statistics during his contract negotiations and an exasperated Dennis struck back,

Where in your statistics does it say that I changed the game with a killer pass?

Coming to Health and Running, in specific, there has been wide range of data analysis that has been used extensively by amateur and professionals. Technological improvements have resulted in getting state of the art gadgets to capture  data and availability of analytical tools, from spreadsheets to complex softwares, have made interpretation and conclusion easier. There are merits in going for a data-based approach to measuring runs and work towards running better. With wide range of metrics available, it often becomes challenging to find the right metric and interpret them in an appropriate manner. Although I stayed away from it for long, I eventually succumbed to tracking data during my runs and had mixed results. Before I narrate my experience, I would like to start with some caveats. 

First, find out why you would like to measure your running or health? You will be surprised to know that it is perfectly fine to run without bothering to measure. I never used a tracking device until 2017 and yes, I was running before I started sharing my runs on Strava.

Second, find out the relevance of the metric and the reference values, when you set your targets. Simply suggesting that you would like to run fast or use Usain Bolt’s speed in his 100m race as a reference for running a marathon does not make any sense. 

Third, get a clear idea on how it is measured. There is no point in relying on heart rate data from a device if you cannot measure your heart rate without using any device.

Fourth, don’t interpret a data for the purposes of deciding a medical treatment unless you are a medical practitioner. If you are feeling uncomfortable, consult a medical practitioner regardless of the data thrown by the device.

Fifth, allow room for possibility of error in measurement as well as interpretation. Every device is bound to fail at some point of time and every metric can be wrongly interpreted. Do not attach significance to either the data or the interpretation if you are not confident of the result.

Sixth, more (complex) data isn’t always better. Technological improvements bring in more varieties of (fancy) data with more errors. There are some new concepts like fitness age, recovery time, VO2 max, power readings, and so on. There is not doubt that these concepts are well researched, but remember that it may not be applicable for every individual in a similar manner.

Seventh, the cost versus benefit conundrum. Most activity trackers carry significant cost and not always, the benefits derived are commensurate to the costs due to limitations of the device as well as the user.

Finally, do not COMPARE data with other runners for interpretation – the physiology or the efforts made by two persons can never be the same, even if the run is on the same day and route.

Whether you measure or you don’t, never let it interfere with the joy of running, which cannot be quantified and must be reason to run.

 

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